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Champaign band Headlights has always been one of my favorite live bands. From the first time we happened upon them at a long ago Corndogorama through the last time they played Atlanta in October 2009, I've been struck by the sheer force of their music which is belied by the somewhat ethereal vocals and almost gentle instrumentation that comprises it. It's always been very compelling, a feeling which perhaps explains why I've been slightly disappointed in the band's recorded output. It's not that their albums have been in any way bad, but rather that they made Headlights seem more effervescent than I believe them to be. Anyway, having said all that, with their third full length record, Wildlife, Headlights have finally managed to come into their own with a recording that blends their compelling melodies and song writing skills with the melancholy strength of the underlying music.

Before I get deep into this review, I have to confess that it's always hardest to write about albums you genuinely love, if only because it's difficult to explain exactly what it is about music that connects with you as a person. Admittedly, I can easily take apart elements of songs and tell people what's going on, but I have a hard time explaining how it all gels into something greater than its parts. Therefore, I'll tell you upfront that I thought Wildlife was the best release of 2009, and I hope that the elements I focus on below give you an idea as to why.

As an example, the first song on Wildlife, Telephones, begins with the definitive organ chording of keyboardist/vocalist Erin Fein and the alternating snare/tom minimalist drumming of Brett Sanderson. A plucked, reverbed guitar line, courtesy of guitarist/vocalist Tristan Wraight, is added before the light, vaguely ethereal vocals of Fein and Wraight come in. At that point, the speed of the song picks up, with the keys breaking into a gentle melody and the drumming becoming more forceful. The song is pretty and bouncy and catchy all at the same time. Likewise, the more upbeat Secrets begins with a simple keyboard line backed with that same light drumming before Fein starts singing in a faster tone over another picked guitar melody. Like the previous song, after a few moments, the pace increases and the instrumentation become fuller as the band moves ahead with what for them is a near breakneck speed. But more than any other thing, what makes this song so very good is the interplay between all of the musical elements, where the guitar, keys, bass, drums, and the vocals all take a prominent part in the proceedings and it all comes together into one almost overwhelming whole. In contrast, I Don't Mind At All, another upbeat tune, begins with some speedier drumming that contrasts with the slower vocal melody sung by both Fein and Wraight, with Wraight singing in his lower register to contrast with Fein's higher-pitched tone. Still, the song maintains the essential energy of the band, especially when Wraight begins playing a feed backed guitar line that is emphasized by the almost vibraphone-y tones of the keys.

While, in general, I tend to be a bigger fan of Headlights' speedier tunes, some of the more beautiful tunes on this record are the slower ones. You and Eye, a song which follows the afore-mentioned Secrets, gives a lovely echo to Fein's dominant vocals so that the instrumentation acts more as an accompaniment than a stand alone component, even as the volume grows louder and music becomes more insistent. Similarly, Wisconsin Beaches features a gently strummed guitar over which Fein sings with that ethereal lightness that characterizes so much of her vocals. Underneath, there is a mournful instrumental melody which swells, turning the tune into something akin to an old-time gospel hymn that is lovely and redemptive at the same time.

Speaking of salvation, the most sheerly gorgeous song on Wildlife is the breath-taking Dead Ends. This one begins quietly with a softly reverbed guitar melody, which is emphasized by a low pitched bass. Over this, both Fein and Wraight sing in an almost conspiratorial manner before the song quickens slightly with a organ harmony and some insistent drumming. As the band moves through what is ostensibly the second verse, the voices become more plaintive with an underlying sadness as the lyrics invoke the mental state of someone brooding. Yet they never become claustrophobic or insular. Instead at the end, the song swells and becomes louder as Wraight comes in with a repeated chorus of "I am never going to let you go" that is made more emphatic with a cathartic loud instrumental bridge. The music then fades out and Fein softly ends everything with another chorus of "I am never going to let you go". Dead Ends in some way sums up what I hear in Headlights' music. The lyrics and melody are gentle and introspective; however, at the same time the music itself leads the listener to a closure filled with hope and light. This is a brilliant song and one that I always feel is over too soon, much like the Wildlife album itself.

Taken as a whole, Wildlife comes across with a unity that has been lacking from Headlights' previous records. The louder songs still have a gentle introspection while the softer song still have an underlying forcefulness. From the beginning through to the end, each song sounds uniquely like Headlights and every notes seems like it has a place and a purpose, which is one things that's missing from so many records. In the end, as I stated at the top, it's hard to explain why this record of all records resonates so greatly with me. All I know is that I hear something very special going on here and it's absolutely lovely.

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Also on EvilSponge:
   EP: The Enemies EP
   Festival Appearance: Corndogorama 2005, Day 4
   EP: EP2
   Festival Performance: SXSW06 on Wed.15.Mar
   Festival Appearance: SxSW07 on Thu.15.Mar.07
   Concert: Tue.27.Oct.09


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